SLOC Security in the Asia Pacific
Professor Ji Guoxing


The economic development of Asian Pacific countries in the passing two to three decades has been closely related to seaborne trade, and the importance of sea lines of communication (SLOC) to regional countries would be much increased in the twenty-first century.  SLOC security is now one of the priorities in regional countries’ strategic thinking and policy making.

The oceans occupy 70 percent of the earth’s surface, and the Pacific Ocean occupies 50 percent of the world’s ocean surface.  World countries have depended on the free passage of goods across the seas, and the majority of Asian Pacific countries, with their export-oriented economic structure, have even more depended on maritime transportation.  An uninterrupted flow of shipping is critical to regional countries’ survival and prosperity.

However, SLOC insecurities do exist, and the problems therein do not warrant optimistic views.  Factors affect SLOC security include: the unstable political relationship among regional countries; different interpretation over the freedom of the seas principle; islands’ sovereignty disputes and overlapping maritime jurisdictional claims; the emerging naval build-up; and non-traditional threats such as pollution, piracy, drug-trafficking, etc.

Being not the possession of anyone country or power, sea lines have to be used and defended jointly by countries.  Regional countries need to promote closer cooperation in guaranteeing SLOC security for mutual interests.

China attaches much importance to SLOC security, and would play a positive role in the safeguarding of SLOC together with other regional countries.  However, China needs to make sustained efforts to let the world community believe its sincerity in maintaining SLOC security and to clarify the misunderstanding prevalent in some world circles that ”China does not support the freedom of the seas principle” and ”China is one of the sources threatening regional SLOC security”.

Major Sea Lines in Regional Seas

The sea occupies an important position in the Asia Pacific, and is the central component of the region. Southeast Asia has a vast span of water with the South China Sea, extending over 1800 miles from Sumatra to Taiwan, as the principal maritime component linking the Indian and the Pacific Oceans.  The shores of Northeast Asian countries are washed by the East China Sea, the Yellow Sea, the Sea of Japan, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Bering Sea, and in a broad sense by the Pacific Ocean.

Sea lines of communication connect world countries with one another.  In peace-time, these ocean routes serve as commercial trade routes; in war-time, they become strategic lines of communication.  The Asia Pacific roughly has two significant sea lines of communication, one passing through the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean and the Middle East, the other passing through the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan to the Pacific Ocean and the Pacific coast of the US and Canada.  Actually, among the world seven major sea lines, apart from the North Atlantic Line, the South Atlantic Line, and the North American-South American Line, the other four lines (the Eurasia Line, the North Pacific Line, the South Pacific Line, and the Cape of Good Hope Line) all relate to the Asia Pacific.  In terms of ship movement, the seas in the Asia Pacific are among the busiest in the world.  For example, a significant volume of commercial and military traffic is involved in the Sea of Japan.  According to a study by the Washington-based Stimson Center, there are more incidents in the Sea of Japan than any other theater worldwide.[1]

The South China Sea provides shipping routes connecting Northeast Asia with Southeast Asia and the Middle East.  The Spratly Islands are located in the southeast quadrant of the sea, an area known to seafarers as ‘dangerous ground’ due to the shallowness of the waters surrounding the islands and numerous submerged reefs around.  Thus most merchant ships steer clear of the Spratlys, and major routes pass well west of the Spratlys.  ”Through the South China Sea pass more than 41,000 ships a year, more than double the number that pass through the Suez Canal and nearly treble the total for the Panama Canal.”[2]

There are several straits of strategic importance in the region, such as the Straits of Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar in Southeast Asia, and the Straits of Tsushima, Tsugaru, Osumi, and Soya (La Perouse) in Northeast Asia.  Major shipping routes in the Asia Pacific are through these key straits.  Due to their potential for closure, these straits are known as chokepoints.

The Strait of Malacca, 600 miles long, is relatively shallow (only 21.8 meters) at some points.  The maximum draught recommended by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) for passing ships is 19.8 meters.  The navigable channel at its narrowest point in the Singapore Strait at its eastern end is only 1.5 miles wide.  This creates a natural bottleneck, with the potential for collision, grounding, or oil spill.

The Strait of Malacca, being the main corridor between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, has as many as 220 ship movements in both directions per day at present, and would have 275 ship movements by the year 2000.  ”About 26 tankers, including three fully loaded supertankers heading for Asian ports, pass through the strait daily.”[3]  Tankers using the waterway by 2010 will be two to three times more numerous than today.  ”If the strait were closed, nearly half of the world’s fleet would be required to sail further, generating a substantial increase in the requirement for vessel capacity.”[4]

The Lombok Strait is wider and deeper than the Strait of Malacca, and passing through it is only 150 miles longer.  As its depths are greater than 150 meters, it is not draught-limited, and its minimum passage width is 11.5 miles.  It is thus used by largest ships over 100,000 DWT (dead weight tonnage).  Most ships transiting the Lombok Strait also pass through the Makassar Strait, which has an available width of 11 miles and a length of 600 miles.  Its depth is 930-3392 meters, mostly suitable for submarines and large ships.

The Sunda Strait is 50 miles long and is another alternative to the Malacca Strait.  Its northeastern entrance is 15 miles wide.  But because its northern part is relatively shallow with dangerous currents, it is not heavily used, and deep-draught ships of over 100,000 DWT do not transit the Strait.

The Strait of Tsushima, being part of the Korea Strait, is the major link between the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan.  It is 137.9 miles long.  Its narrowest point is 25 miles wide, and its deepest point is 129 meters.  It is heavily used by vessels traveling to and from the east coast of South Korea, western Japan, and Vladivostok of Russia.

The Strait of Tsugaru, located between Japan’s Hokkaido and Honshu Islands, connects the Sea of Japan with the North Pacific Ocean.  It is 71.5 miles long.  Its narrowest point is 10.1 miles wide, and the deepest point of the navigable channel is 521 meters.

The Osumi Strait is a major connection from the Yellow Sea and the East China Sea to the Pacific.

The Strait of Soya (La Perouse) connects the Sea of Japan with the Sea of Okhotsk.  Its narrowest point is 20 miles wide, and its depth is 30-60 meters.  

For straits used for international navigation, some regional countries have modified the width of their territorial sea.  In spite of their declaration of 12 nautical miles (nm) territorial seas, both Japan and South Korea have modified their territorial seas to 3 nm in the Korea Strait, thus providing a high seas ”corridor”, through which ships may transit without entering the territorial seas of Japan and South Korea.  Japan has also declared territorial seas of 3 nm wide in the Tsugaru, Osumi, and Soya (La Perouse) straits.

SLOCs as Lifelines to Regional Countries

The Asian Pacific countries rely heavily on intra-regional and inter-regional trade for their economic development, and seaborne trade is the most efficient and economical means of transporting large volume and heavy weight cargoes.  Shipping routes are thus described as the arteries of the regional economy.

The volume of major sea-trade commodities in the Asia Pacific has surpassed 1.5 billion tons, comprising over one-third of the world’s maritime trade volume.  About 15 % of the total volume of world trade transit the Southeast Asian SLOCs.  Regional countries using the major East Asian SLOCs for international trade amounted to US$ 949.5 billion in 1994, with 54.5% being Northeast Asian trade and 45.4 % being Southeast Asian trade.  Among them, Japan’s and China’s total trade via Southeast Asian lines was US$ 260.4 billion and US$ 65.6 billion respectively, 39 % and 27 % respectively of their total trade.  For South Korea, ”The shipping routes connecting the Strait of Hormuz, Malacca-Singapore straits and Southeast Asian waters form the most important ocean routes used to import strategic commodities.”[5]

The major commodities brought on northbound East Asian SLOCs include crude oil from the Middle East as well as grain, coal and iron ore to fuel Northeast Asian industry. Southbound shipping on the East Asian SLOCs consists primarily of manufactured products bound for Southeast Asia and Europe.  ”The overall pattern of shipping is that large tonnages of low-value commodities are shipped to industrial economies (Japan and the four NIEs), which then ‘add value’ via manufacturing process.  The industrial economies then ship out relatively smaller tonnages of high-value goods.”[6]

With the rapid economic growth of Asian Pacific economies in the passing decades, the center of international navigation is moving east to the Asia Pacific.  Asian countries are now increasingly participating in ownership of the world shipping fleet.  Over the last two decades, South Korea, China, Singapore, and China’s Taiwan have joined Japan and Hong Kong as major ship owners.  These six economies now own 201,645 DWT, 30.05 % of the total world shipping tonnage.  Of the 20 largest container shipping lines in the world, half are owned and based in Asia, and among the world top 20 container ports, 18 are in the Asia Pacific.  The Asian financial crisis since July 1997 has affected the regional demand for maritime navigation, but in the medium-term and long-term perspectives, the Asian Pacific economic growth will be resumed and regional demand for navigation would continue to increase at a high rate.  The quick recovery of some regional countries such as South Korea is an example.

Maritime transport is divided into three major categories: dry bulk (dominated by iron ore, grain, and coal); liquid bulk (dominated by crude oil and petroleum products); and general cargo (dominated by containers).  ”Tonnage via Malacca and the Spratly Islands is dominated by liquid bulk such as crude oil and liquid natural gas, with dry bulk (mostly coal and iron ore) in second place.  Nearly two-thirds of the tonnage passing through the Strait of Malacca, and half of the volume passing the Spratly Islands, is crude oil from the Persian Gulf.”[7]

Oil is the dominant source of energy for Asian Pacific countries.  As Asian Pacific oil consumption is much greater than production, these countries will become increasingly dependent on imported oil from the Middle East.  At present oil imports account for almost 60 % of Asian oil consumption, and by 2010 import dependence is projected to increase to at least 75 %.  The rapid growth in regional seaborne energy trade has resulted in increased numbers of tankers and LNG/LPG carriers plying regional shipping routes.  In Northeast Asia, there is very heavy oil tanker traffic mainly to Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  About 4 billion barrels of crude oil a day are imported by them, representing 23 % of the global total.  LNG shipments through the South China Sea constitute two-thirds of the world’s overall LNG trade.  The supply of energy and its unimpeded transportation become major security concerns in the region.

Keeping the sea lines of communication secure and unencumbered is an important  economic and security interest for the US.  The US reaffirms that, ”Promoting stability in the Arabian Gulf, maintaining freedom of the seas, protecting sea lines of communication, particularly in the Strait of Malacca, and other efforts to safeguard energy supplies will become a challenge of increasing mutual interest.”[8]

In respect to dry bulk trade, the quantity of dry bulk cargo imported by Asia is 56 % of the world total (coal 50 %, iron ore 60 %, grain 60 %).

Australia is the principal supplier of coal to most Asian markets, providing 100 million tons in 1996.  US and Canada are also important suppliers, shipping 16 and 25 million tons respectively in 1996.  China is estimated to supply between 15 % and 20 % of Asia’s coal import need by 2001, and Indonesia is emerging as a second major coal exporter.   

Because iron mines are found in only a few countries, most of the iron ore trade is carried out by sea.  According to UNCTAD Trust Fund statistics, trade in iron ore was 430.6 million tons in 1995; Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan accounted for 47.8 % of the world’s iron ore imports.  Japan imported 120.4 million tons of iron ore from Australia, Brazil, and India; South Korea imported 35 million tons from Australia, Brazil, India and Canada; China imported 41.3 million tons from Australia, Brazil, South Africa and India.[9]   Australia exports now provide nearly 60 % of Asian demand for iron ore. 

As East Asia is becoming a grain-importing region, the increasing demand for grain is having a big impact on the maritime transport trade.  Northeast Asian countries are heavily dependent on the US, Canada, and Australia for grain import. ” At the present time grain imports to Asia stand at around 75 million tons per year, of which Japan accounts for a little under 40 percent.  Approximately 30 percent is accounted for by the East Asian NIEs, while China’s imports account for more than 20 percent.”[10] Canada has approximately 12 % of the total Asian grain market.

In respect to container trade, the total volume of containers in East Asia’s ports increased by 270 % from 15.92 million TEU (20-foot equivalent units) in 1985 to 60.1 million TEU in 1995.  It is anticipated that East Asian ports will probably handle around 50 % of total world container throughput by 2005.  The intra-Asian container trade has consistently registered growth, and is now recognized as the second largest container trade in the world–second only to the trans-Pacific trade.

UNCLOS and Freedom of the Seas Principle

The principle of the freedom of the seas was first enunciated by a Dutch lawyer Hugo Grotius in the early 17th century.  He set out the legal principle that ”Navigation was free to all and no one country could lay claim to the seas on the basis that their navigators were the first to sail on it.”[11]  His intention was to contest the right which Portugal took upon itself to prohibit all others from engaging in seaborne commerce with the East Indies.  In fact, during the history of maritime affairs, the Portuguese practice is no exception; maritime powers usually sought freedom for their own commerce and trade and a restriction on others.  ”Even those who espouse freedom in shipping today, often really mean freedom for themselves on the back of restrictions on others.”[12]  Nowadays, in theory, every country has the freedom of the seas; in practice, those developed economies and maritime powers are enjoying mostly the freedom of the seas.

The freedom of the seas principle today is set out in UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) in 1982, which came into force in November 1994.  UNCLOS codifies the legal regime governing virtually every aspect in, over or under the seas, contributes to the building of a stable maritime regime, including navigation regime, and makes a significant development in the law of navigation.  ”Counterbalancing the adoption of distended national jurisdiction toward the seas, the UNCLOS established three important regimes in securing the freedom of navigation, namely, ‘innocent passage’ through territorial waters, ‘transit passage’ through international straits, and ‘archipelagic sea-lanes passage’ through archipelagoes,”[13] in addition to freedom of navigation in the contiguous zone, in the exclusive economic zone, and on the high seas.

However, UNCLOS does not resolve all issues and many problems exist.  As UNCLOS ”marked a fundamental compromise between the preservation of freedom of navigation in return for a preferential share of high seas mineral resources for the developing world,”[14] and is designed ”to balance the rights of users or maritime states to a reasonable degree of freedom of the seas, with the interests of coastal states to protect and safeguard their sovereignty, marine resources and environment.”[15], it is ambiguous on many issues, and only offers general rules and principles.  Difference in understanding and interpretation is prevalent in the world community.  General State practice remains conflicting as well.  

The unresolved issues regarding navigation which might be potential sources of conflicts include:    

Firstly, regarding the innocent passage through the territorial waters, it has been a much debated issue for long in the international community as to whether the right of innocent passage applies to warships.  Coastal states have been reluctant to permit passage to warships without prior authorization or notification.  ”The history of foreign invasion and traditionally sensitive security concern in the Asia Pacific caused many littoral states in the region to have strong reservations on the right of foreign warships to innocent passage through their coastal waters.”[16]  Regional countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, North Korea, and Pakistan require authorization or notification for the innocent passage of foreign warships.

The interpretation of the innocent passage norms becomes an issue in respect of the Java Sea.  For years, Indonesia wants to impose some rules to regulate the movements of foreign warships using the Java Sea.  They say warships sailing outside designated sea-lanes should abide by the norms that govern the rights of innocent passage.  “Under the Indonesian interpretation of these norms, submarines must sail on the surface, weapons and surveillance radars must be switched off and aircraft-carriers must keep their planes deck-bound.”[17]  But Indonesia’s dictates are unacceptable to the US.  The Americans have pointed out that, “Under the proposed rules, US navy ships sailing out of Singapore would have to wait until they neared the Sunda Strait before they could go into operational mode.  The prospect of its ships sailing more than 300 kilometers in less than battle-readiness doesn’t appeal to the US navy.”[18]

For the avoidance of misunderstanding regarding this controversial issue, the US and the former Soviet Union signed in 1989 a joint statement on innocent passage of warships in each other’s territorial seas and set forth in more details their interpretation of the Convention governing innocent passage in the territorial seas.  Other countries probably need to follow suit.

Secondly, regarding the transit passage through international straits, it is defined as the exercise of the freedom of navigation and overflight solely for the purpose of continuous and expeditious transit in the normal modes of operation utilized by ships and aircrafts for such passage.  But it has been controversial as to whether submarines are free to transit international straits submerged.  Besides, controversy lies in the rights of a strait state to interfere with transit passage due to suspected pollution incidents, and the scope of regulatory responsive measures to accidents and pollution taken by a strait state.  Moreover, there are various proposals by regional strait states ”to go beyond the IMO safety regulations and traffic-lane demarcations and to impose additional restrictions on passing ships, including even tolls for the use of these recognized straits”[19], which have been resisted by other countries.

Thirdly, regarding archipelagic sea-lanes passage, ”Under the LOS Convention an archipelagic state may designate sea lanes and air routes suitable for the continuous and expeditious passage of foreign ships and aircrafts through or above its archipelagic waters.  Such archipelagic sea lanes must include all normal passage routes and all normal navigational channels.  On the other hand, innocent passage applies in other archipelagic waters seaward of the internal waters of the islands of the archipelago.”[20]  Different interpretations of these stipulations exist between maritime powers and archipelagic states.

The Convention assigns archipelagic states for designating sea lanes in coordination with the IMO (International Maritime Organization).  But uncertainty exists regarding it.  Indonesia believes it alone has the right to decide on such matters.  Indonesia recognizes the authority of the IMO only on matters relating to navigational aids and the safety of shipping–not on the delineation of sea lanes.  Indonesia, in declaring her new archipelagic sea-lanes, proposed to limit passage to only three north-south sea-lanes.[21]  This attempt to restrict avenues and methods of routine naval passage through the Indonesian archipelago has even been resisted by the US Pentagon. Washington opposes proposed sea-lane rules by Indonesia, ”Establishing sea lanes without concurrence would set a dangerous precedent.”[22]  To utilize its geostrategic leverage, Indonesia did try in 1978 and 1988 ”to close the Lombok and Sunda Straits as a way of asserting its sovereignty over two of the world’s most important maritime choke points.”[23]

Fourthly, regarding naval activities in EEZ, the EEZ regime in UNCLOS attempts to accommodate the competing interests of coastal states for greater control over offshore resources, and those of maritime powers for maintaining traditional freedom of action in waters beyond territorial seas.  But the restrictive regime of the EEZ might pose a threat to the mobility of navies and the ongoing controversy over the EEZ regime includes the freedom of action of foreign navies within EEZ.  The issues are whether foreign navy is free to conduct military maneuvers within EEZ without requiring prior notification or authorization from the coastal state; and whether a state is free to place non-economic installations, such as submarine detection devices in the EEZ of foreign state, which do not interfere with coastal enjoyment of its EEZ rights.

The restrictions over freedom of the seas raised by the  wording of the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty signed by the ASEAN countries at the Bangkok Summit in December 1995 have caused concerns in the US and some major powers.  The treaty includes a protocal open to signature by the five declared nuclear weapon states.  The US issued a statement on 15 December 1995, saying, ”One of the most significant issues preventing us from supporting the treaty at this point is the inclusion of exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and continental shelves in the zone, which we believe is inconsistent with internationally recognized high seas freedoms of navigation and overflight.  We feel that, to the extent that the SEANWFZ Treaty imposes security obligations on non-treaty parties without their consent in areas where high seas freedom exist, the treaty is inconsistent with the UN Law of the Sea Convention and sets an unfortunate precedent.”[24]

Fifthly, the legal issues relating to the shipment of nuclear wastes through certain ocean areas such as EEZs, territorial seas and straits.  Those nations supporting the shipments assert that the shipments are free to navigate through any part of the ocean under the traditional doctrines of innocent passage, transit passage, and freedom of the high seas.  Many of those nations concerned about the shipments argue instead that the environmental provisions in the 1982 UNCLOS and the 1989 Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal ”require nations shipping these wastes to prepare environmental assessments and then to provide notification to and seek authorization of affected nations before passing through their territorial seas and exclusive economic zones.”[25]  The issue of restricting the passage of vessels carrying nuclear or other hazardous cargoes through the Malacca Strait has often been raised by states littoral to the Strait.

Present SLOC Insecurities

As sea lines in the region are proximate to the Asian land mass, and pass through narrow chokepoints, they are highly vulnerable.  “In these straits, any attempt to hinder or block passage of ships by coastal states, if the experience of the Suez Canal and the Gulf is any guide, could pose a threat to SLOC security in the region.”[26]

Firstly, The unstable political relationship among regional countries, especially among US, Japan, and China constitutes a major threat to regional SLOC security.  Without an amicable and cooperative political atmosphere among regional countries, one cannot expect to have a secure and stable maritime transportation in the seas.

The attempt by some circles in the US to sow discord between US and China and to disrupt the ongoing bilateral relationship of strategic partnership would destabilize the region and threaten SLOC security.  The suspicions and mistrust between China and Japan would also affect regional peace and development as well as regional SLOC security.

Take the revised US-Japan Defense Guidelines for example, China strongly opposes the enlargement of Japan’s military role in the Asia Pacific.  As said in the new Guidelines, Japan has set forth a more definitive role in responding to situations in areas surrounding Japan that will have an important influence on Japan’s peace and security.  It is said, “The concept ‘situations in areas surrounding Japan’ embodied in the revised Guidelines is not geographical but situational.”[27]  But it is clear that the guidelines “allow Japanese troops to serve independently outside Japan for the first time since World War Two.  Previously they could only serve overseas as part of UN peace-keeping operations.”[28]  The Guidelines were approved in the Japanese Parliament in May 1999, and have become the law.  Such an enhancement of a bilateral military alliance runs against the historic trend and aggravate regional tension and SLOC insecurity.  Keeping alive of the memories of the Japanese invasion, China and other East Asian countries are gravely concerned over it.

What’s more, it is widely reported in Japan’s mass media that Taiwan is included in “areas surrounding Japan”.  Evidently Japan wants to intervene in China’s domestic affairs.  China is firm that the “areas surrounding Japan” should not incorporate Taiwan.

Besides, Japan’s self-imposed role since 1981 in safeguarding the SLOCs up to 1,000 miles from its territory for its oil life-lines has already aroused concern in the region.  In line with the commitment, Japan is able to conduct regular maritime surveillance of its neighboring seas and its sea lanes by utilizing maritime patrol aircraft and naval vessels.  If all regional countries are set to defend 1,000 miles as Japan does, all the seas in the region would be full of potential conflicts.  With the expanded role by the Guidelines, Japan could more conveniently stretch out its muscles in the Asia Pacific.

Secondly, islands’ sovereignty disputes and overlapping maritime claims constitute another major threat to regional SLOC security.  Disputes over sovereignty of some islets located along sea lines in the South and East China Seas have the potential to spark open conflict.  “An interruption to the SLOC security could arise as a side effect of armed clashes between coastal states engaged in pressing claims to maritime jurisdiction, particularly those to mid-sea islands.”[29]  In March 1999, two unknown ships entered into Japan’s territorial seas, and fled into international waters after Japan’s warnings.  In June 1999, North Korea and South Korea clashed in the fishing areas in the Yellow Sea which both claim.  “The regional states have fears for the vulnerability of the SLOCs in the South China Sea.  Also, there is a fear among Japanese that the same atmosphere of tension and insecurity will be seen in the East China Sea before long.”[30]

Thirdly, the ongoing naval build-up by regional countries would be another threat to SLOC security.  In order to assure sea-lane security many countries in the region, including a number of medium and small states, are engaging in defense buildups, and maritime capabilities are at the forefront of these defense acquisition programs.  Japan, South Korea and China are enhancing their sea-lane defense capacity, and countries astride the sea-lanes are also expanding their own naval force.  “On the naval front, around 200-250 new major surface vessels were originally planned for procurement by the new century.  Furthermore, analysts have expected that more than 36 new modern submarines will be acquired by Asian states in the next decade-primarily by Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and Indonesia.”[31]  The financial crisis since 1997 has either slowed down the pace of their modernization programs or in some cases suspended their major arms buys.  But on the whole, the region will remain one of the most lucrative markets in the world for defense manufacturers.  The dangers of a naval arms race and the risk of naval confrontation along the sea-lanes are emerging.

Fourthly, the transport of radioactive wastes from Europe to Japan through the Asian Pacific region is another threat to SLOC security.  Three shipments of radioactive wastes have taken place to date since 1992, with an expectation of continued shipments for 10 years or more with a frequency of one or two shipments per year.  “Many coastal states along the routes taken by the shipments have expressed concern, with some states banning the shipments from their exclusive economic zones and territorial waters.”[32]  Malaysia has condemned the shipments and has demanded that the vessels not enter Malaysia’s territorial waters. Indonesia has declared that as it cannot close international sea lanes, it has called on Japan, even pressed Japan, not to use Indonesian waters.  

There is also concern that the Japanese shipments may open the door to worldwide commercial traffic in one of the most toxic substances known.  For example, South Korea and Taiwan may eventually want to start shipping spent nuclear fuel from their reactors for reprocessing into plutonium and have it returned by sea.[33]

Finally, non-conventional actions such as piracy, maritime hijacking, drug trafficking, pollution, natural disasters also threaten SLOC security.

Piracy poses a real danger to SLOC security.  Piracy and armed robbery in Southeast Asia is known to account for about 60 % of the total reported piracy in the world.  Piracy “hot spots” in the region are: the Straits of Malacca and Sunda, offshore Vietnam and Cambodia, the Hong Kong-Luzon-Hainan triangle, the area north of Taiwan, and the Yellow Sea areas.  According to the International Maritime Bureau (IMB), over two-thirds of the world’s piracy incidents in 1992 and 1993 occurred in the Asian Pacific region.  In 1994 and onwards, there was a significant increase in piracy incidents in Indonesian waters.  According to IMB statistics, in 1995 and 1996, more than 50 % of the world’s piracy incidents occurred in East Asia, with 101 of 170 global pirate attacks in 1995, and 100 of 175 global pirate attacks in 1996.  East Asia’s financial crisis has led to an increase in piracy and the piracy incidents in the South China Sea in 1997.

Pollution is another big problem.  The major concern is the possibility of a catastrophic oil spill.  The first major oil pollution incident in the Sea of Japan was the 6,400 tons spilled from the wrecked tanker Juliana.  Then a South Korean spill of 80 tons of bunker-C in 1987 when a tanker was wrecked 40 miles off Inchon Habor.  In the heavily trafficked straits such as the Malacca Strait, there are frequent worries about the danger of a major oil spill seriously disrupting, or even closing the strait.

Another source of tanker-related oil pollution is the discharge of tank washings.  Approximately 1,000 tons, or 300,000 gallons one single voyage of a 200,000 ton tanker may be discharged into the sea with tank washings.

Maritime natural hazards, such as floods, tropical storms, severe oceanic conditions and tsunamis, also greatly affect maritime transportation.  The seriousness of regional natural disasters is clear at a glance of the words that “The Asia Pacific area includes 52 % of the earth’s surface area, 59 % of the world’s population, and over 70 % of the world’s natural disasters.”[34]

China versus SLOC Security

China’s economic reform and economic interests decide that China pays great importance to the guarantee of SLOC security.

China’s rapid economic growth and industrialization in the passing two decades have led to a dramatic increase in the demand for maritime transportation.  Its import and export volume was US$ 135.63 billion in 1991, and US$ 325.06 billion in 1997, an average annual growth rate of 15.9;[35] and 90% of its foreign trade is by sea-transportation.  As there exists a big imbalance between supply and demand in oil for China, it has to import oil by sea. Currently around half of China’s oil imports are from the Middle East.  As the gap is being widened at a rate of 7 million tons per year, China’s net oil import is projected to reach 55 million tons yearly (mt/y) in 2000, and 116-150 mt/y in 2010.

Significant achievements have been made by China in ocean-going transportation and container transportation capacity.  “By the end of 1997, merchant ships had increased to 320,000 with a total dead-weight tonnage of close to 50 million, of which more than 23 million were of the fleets in foreign trade transportation.”[36]  At present, China has 15 harbors each with an annual handling capacity of more than 10 million tons.  The harbors with annual handling capacity above 10,000 tons number 200.  In 1997, the volume of freight handled by the country’s major coastal harbors totaled 905 million tons.  In recent years, China’s coastal shipbuilding industry has shown a trend of rapid development, and in 1997 China’s shipbuilding tonnage ranked third in the world.

The volume of containers handled by Chinese ports has surged, increasing four-fold between 1990 and 1995.  Shanghai, which accounts for about one-third of the total containers handled by China, increased by 26.4 % in 1996.  By the end of the decade, the ports of China will handle more than 10 % of the Asian total.

With the rapid growth in Chinese cargoes, and improved handling capacities at mainland ports, major lines begin to experiment with direct calls at mainland ports, collecting cargoes previously transshipped through Hong Kong or Japanese ports.

Proceeding from its economic interests, China is fully aware of the importance of the sea routes. ” As a member of the IMO China has signed bilateral maritime transportation agreements with 51 countries, making positive efforts to promote international cooperation and exchanges in maritime transportation.  At the 16th to 20th sessions of the IMO, China was successively elected as an A-level council member state.  China has also acceded to 30-some conventions formulated by the IMO.”[37]  To date, the Chinese government has accepted all the major international conventions related to maritime safety and pollution prevention, including Safety of Life at Sea Convention of 1974, Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea Convention of 1972, Search and Rescue Convention of 1979, Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973/78, etc.

China supports the principle of the freedom of the seas.  In view of the concerns in the world community over the disruption of SLOCs in the South China Sea after the Mischief Reef incident, China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement in May 1995, saying “While safeguarding its sovereignty over the Nansha (Spratly) Islands and its maritime rights and interests, China will fulfill its duty of guaranteeing freedom of navigation for foreign ships and air routes through and over the international passage of the South China Sea according to international law.”[38]  It is clear from the statement that China respects innocent passage through territorial waters of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and respects freedom of navigation in the EEZ of those big islands  entitled to have these claims, as well as freedom of navigation on the remaining high seas in the South China Sea.  Thus China’s statement implies that freedom of navigation applies to both the sea areas under its jurisdiction and the high seas.  Worries in some circles that China’s stated freedom of navigation only applies to the high seas are uncalled-for.

Currently there are two security zones proclaimed by China in the Yellow and East China Seas.  One is a military alert zone extending west of a line from the North Korean-China border at the mouth of the Yalu River to a point off the Shadong Peninsula.  Another is a military exclusive zone in the vicinity of Shanghai. Entry into the two zones is forbidden even on innocent passage without specific permission.  China’s establishment of the zones is for self-protection.  With the improvement of relations among regional countries, it is expected that China might reconsider these zones in line with the concept of freedom of navigation.

China strongly opposes piracy in SLOCs, and has taken measures to exercise more control on local ‘rogue’ officials.  Historically, China has suffered greatly from piracy and drug smuggling, and therefore has striven to crack down on crimes at sea.  Some piracy incidents in the South China Sea and East China Sea in early 1990s might have come from some Chinese individuals and institutions, but they were not ‘a deliberate PRC exercise of extra-territorial sovereignty and an unofficial exertion of expansive PRC maritime claims’ as thought by some Asians.  Beijing stated that “Rogue elements of the Chinese Customs and Public Security Bureau (not military units) were responsible.”[39]  After an attempt in May 1994 by some Chinese to seize a vessel inside Hong Kong’s territorial waters, China formally made an apology and promised to avoid such incidents in the future.  When Japan proposed to China in 1993 that officials from the two countries’ coastguard authorities meet to discuss East China Sea shipping problems, China agreed to the meeting, and both sides arranged the establishment of a hotline between their coastguard authorities.  

China’s ability in defending SLOCs is limited, and stands for cooperative actions with regional countries in the safeguard of regional SLOC security.  In terms of the number of craft, the Chinese navy is big; but it is still an obsolescent force, limited in size, scope, endurance and sophistication.  China has no military forces to protect its seaborne trade.  China lacks air and naval forces for controlling sea routes.  Sharing common interests with other regional countries, China supports cooperation in defending SLOCs.

There exist in the world community the apprehensions of “China threat by its ocean-going navy”.  If the misunderstandings are not cleared up, they would affect regional cooperation on SLOC security.

China’s ongoing defense buildup, including naval buildup, is a purely defensive one.  The Chinese Navy’s strategic mission, as stated by its commander Admiral Shi Yunsheng, is “to contain and resist foreign aggression from the sea, to defend our territorial sovereignty, and to safeguard the unity of the motherland and maritime rights and interests.”[40] China will try to protect its maritime rights and interests of the 200 miles exclusive economic zones, and at some other locations the rights of continental shelves when they are more than 200 miles away from the shores.

Since the mid-1980s, the Chinese navy’s strategy has changed its emphasis from coastal defense to offshore defense.  Offshore defense means the defense of China’s maritime rights and interests in its maritime jurisdictional zones.  The then naval commander-in-chief Liu Huaqing made known in 1987 the navy’s modernization plan, which included “the transformation of the Chinese navy from a coastal defense force into a force capable of limited oceangoing operation.”[41]  According to Liu’s plan, “The outmost defense approaches of the Chinese navy will be spanned around the China seas:  to the Korean Strait in the north, to Liuqiu islands in the east, and to Nansha islands in the south.”[42]  These outermost defense approaches are what “limited oceangoing operations” and “the operations in offshore seas” refer to.  China will not build a global offensive navy.  The Chinese navy will only operate in offshore seas within the requirements of China’s security and defense, and is not embarking on ‘a transition to a blue-water power’.

China’s rise would not constitute a threat to others.  Whether a nation poses a threat to world peace is not determined by its power but by the nature of its domestic and foreign policies.  China’s domestic policy is one of wholehearted commitment to reform and economic development and its foreign policy is one of independence and peace.  China will not threaten the others’ security.  Actually, it is China who feels that it is being threatened by other big powers, especially after the Nato’s eastward expansion and the new US-Japanese security Guidelines.  China is faced in the back with the Nato’s expanded influences in Central Asia, and in the front with Japan’s expanded roles in areas surrounding Japan.

Regional SLOC Security Cooperation

As sea lines are crucial to the survival and prosperity of the Asian Pacific countries, the safeguard of SLOC security is in the interests of all regional countries.  Since the world’s oceans are an integral whole, no country can defend the wide radius of the sea lines by itself.  In many ways, SLOC is the classical multilateral maritime security interest, and provides the most basic demonstration of how a nation’s maritime security interests extend beyond its own waters.

There have been already successful precedents in this respect.  The joint Maritime Operation Planning Team between Singapore and Indonesia in the Malacca Strait is a good example.  The Regional Piracy Centre established by the International Maritime Bureau in Kuala Lumpur in 1992 covering all the countries east of Sri Lanka to Southeast Asia and the Far East for serving as an information and reporting center, is another example.  

But such limited cooperation is far from enough.  Further cooperative approaches to the maintenance and protection of sea lines are much needed to develop.

First of all, the common understanding and interpretation of UNCLOS stipulations related to the SLOC security is much needed to ensure the security at sea.  To secure a common interpretation of UNCLOS stipulations could promote the uniform practice and acceptance of essential rules of the regime and help to build a stable maritime regime.  Having consensus on the interpretation, countries could together clarify the outer limits of coastal states’ claims to sovereignty and jurisdiction over adjacent maritime areas.  Regional countries could as well give publicity to the charts or lists of geographical coordinates related to their baselines and maritime jurisdictional zones.

Besides, countries could reach agreements regarding cooperation in the law enforcement on the high seas for guaranteeing the norms for international navigation on the high seas.  Potential conflicts such as the one happened in October 1994 in the Yellow Sea with the USS Kitty Hawk chasing and threatening a Chinese submarine should be avoided.

Secondly, proper settlement of islands’ sovereignty disputes and overlapping maritime claims should be put on the agenda of regional leaders.  As an expedient measure, the establishment of joint patrol area and joint development zone could be initiated.

Thirdly, the ways of guaranteeing oil and gas import transportation security should be given special attention.

Fourthly, naval cooperation is of particular importance to SLOC security. Bilateral and multilateral naval cooperation for CBM would reduce uncertainty in maritime security environment.  Concrete cooperative approaches should be worked out for the protection of SLOC, especially the ways to deal with those non-conventional threats.  They might include humanitarian assistance, search and rescue (SAR), avoidance of incident at sea (INCSEA) agreements, anti-piracy cooperation, cooperative maritime surveillance, and mine-countermeasures.

There have been two regional organizations engaged in maritime security issues.  APEC has been active in recent years in furthering regional cooperation in shipping and maritime safety.  The Transportation Working Group under APEC has taken a number of initiatives to facilitate the maritime commerce. ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum) has started to move into the area of maritime cooperation.  It invited US and Thailand to co-chair an ARF Maritime Specialist Officials meeting in Honolulu in November 1998 in conjunction with a meeting of the Intersessional Support Group on CBMs. Regional SLOC security cooperation might fall within the framework of one of the present two existing regional organizations.

CSCAP (Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific) which is supposed to be the premier institution of track-two process to support the ARF, seems to be rather active on security issues these years.  However, facts have shown that there have been actually no track-two activities in some member countries of CSCAP regarding the participation of delegates and the presentation of their perspectives.  Thus the further development of CSCAP is in question.  The institutionalization of track-two process as CSCAP has done is in fact not helpful.  It is better to let track-two process be more open and in a loose form, and inclusive of all academic, non-governmental activities.

Since 1995 there has been a Maritime Cooperative Working Group affiliated to CSCAP.  The working group has convened several meetings and has been very productive in making suggestions for regional maritime cooperation.  It is suggested that a regional SLOC cooperative organization might be set up based on the Maritime Cooperative Working Group.  The Group could be restructured and put under ARF or APEC.  The new organization would coordinate all the bilateral and sub-regional activities in the region, apart from liaison among regional law enforcement authorities. 

[1] Barry M. Blechman, et. al.,”The US Stake in Naval Arms Control”, Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington DC, 1990.

[2] International Herald Tribune, 3 May 1999.

[3] Sumihiko Kawamura, ”Shipping and Regional Trade: Regional Security Interests”, in Sam Bateman and Stephen Bates ed., Shipping and Regional Security, Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence No.129, Australian National University, 1998, p.16.

[4] World Oil Transit Chokepoint, May 1998 on the world-wide web at <>.

[5] Seo-Hang Lee, ”SLOC Security in Northeast Asia: Korean Navy’s Role”, in Dalchoong Kim and Doug-Woon Cho ed., Korean Sea Power and the Pacific Era, Institute of East and West Studies, Yonsei University, 1990, p. 86.

[6] Sumihiko Kawamura, op. cit., p. 15. Cited from the US Pacific Command’s Asia Pacific Economic Update.

[7] ”South China Sea Region”, United States Energy Information Administration, August 1998, on the world-wide web at <>.

[8] The United States Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region, released by the US Secretary of Defense, November 1998, p. 56.

[9] Joonson Jon, ”Critical Non-Energy Import Dependencies in Northeast Asia”, in Sam Bateman and Stephen Bates ed., op. cit., pp. 82-83.

[10] Stephen J. Meyrick, ”Developments in Asian MaritimeTrade”, in Maritime Shipping in Northeast Asia: Law of the Sea, Sea Lanes, and Security, IGCC Policy Paper 33, February 1998, Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, University of California, p.16.

[11] Bruce Farthing, Farthing on International Shipping, Business of Shipping Series, LLP, London Hong Kong, 1997, p. 7.

[12] Ibid, p. 2.

[13] Sang-Seek Park, ”New Maritime Order in the Asia Pacific toward the 21st Century”, paper for the 12th International Conference on SLOC Studies, Seoul, 6-7 April 1999.

[14] Mark J. Valencia, ”Northeast Asia: Transnational Navigational Issues and Possible Cooperative Responses”, in IGCC Policy Paper 33, op. cit., p. 26.

[15] Jin-Hyun Paik, ”Law of the Sea and Stable Maritime Regime”, paper for the 12th International Conference on SLOC Studies, Seoul, 6-7 April 1999.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 February 1996.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Stanley B. Weeks, ”Sea Lines of Communication Security and Access”, in Sam Bateman and Stephen Bates ed., op. cit., p. 50.

[20] Jin-Hyun Paik, op. cit.

[21] Far Eastern Economic Review, 29 February 1996.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Stanley B. Weeks, “Sea Lines of Communication Security and Access”, op. Cit., p. 52.

[25] Grant Hewison, “Return Shipments of Radioactive Wastes from Europe to Japan”, in Sam Bateman and Stephen Bates ed., op. cit., p. 101.

[26] Seo-Hang Lee, “Security of SLOCs in East Asia”, in IGCC Policy Paper, # 33, op. cit., p. 74.

[27] The US Security Strategy for the East Asia-Pacific Region, op. cit., p. 20.

[28] South China Morning Post, 5 May 1999.

[29] Seo-Hang Lee, “Security of SLOCs in East Asia”, op. cit., p. 74.

[30] Sumihiko Kawamura, “Maritime Transport and Communications-Including Marine Safety and SLOC Security” in Sam Bateman and Stephen Bates ed., Calming the Waters: Initiatives for Asia Pacific Maritime Cooperation, Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defense, No. 114, Australian National Univesity, 1996, p. 93.

[31] Frank Umbach, “Financial Crisis Slows but Fails to Halt East Asian Arms Race”, Jane’s Intelligence Review, August 1998, p. 23.

[32] Grant Hewison, op. cit., p. 93.

[33] Mark J. Valencia, op. cit., p. 32.

[34] APEC Emergency Preparedness website:

[35] China Statistical Yearbook 1998, compiled by PRC State Statistical Bureau, China Statistical Publishing House, September 1998, p. 620.

[36] “The Development of China’s Marine Programs”, Information Office of PRC State Council, May 1998, Beijing Review, 15-21 June 1998, p. 16.

[37] Ibid, p. 22.

[38] Beijing Review, 8-14 May 1995, P. 22.

[39] Far Eastern Economic Review, Asia Handbook, 1995, pp. 62-63.

[40] Outlook Weekly, Beijing, 21 March 1997.

[41] Shi Rongsheng ed., “The Structure and Modernization of the Chinese Navy”, Military History, China, No. 2, 1991, p. 25.

[42] Ibid., p. 26.